Listener – April 14, 2001
“Intellectual bullshit artist” and “concept leader for art” Ian Wedde makes his comeback as a man of letters.
Ian Wedde is writing poetry again after a decade’s layoff. He rose out of the late 60s an intellectual bigwig, a key writer of his generation, the Big Smoke generation. His poetry, prose and art criticism flowed into our culture for more than 20 years. But an increasing interest in staging cultural events saw him eventually become an exhibition curator and, in 1994, “Concept Leader for Art” at the project that grew into Te Papa (a job he still holds today). And while his life was taking this new course, the poetry all but dried up.
He stopped writing, he says, because his “bullshit detector” became over-sensitised and writing had come to feel fraudulent. Two years ago, however, he began to rethink his poetic manifesto.
“I wanted to put two things together,” says Wedde. “One was a love of and attention to ordinary things, simple commonplace things, and the other was to be brave about big themes . . . love, death.”
He fires a salvo at fellow writers: “And also to be quite honest, I was bored out my brain with irony. I was so tired of the distancing of so much contemporary writing, the patently dishonest flattening out of tone and the avoidence of big themes.”
The initial process of writing again was scary. Could he do it again? “There’s a moment where that kind of worry turns into cowardliness. There’s a moment where your hesitation is just – the water’s cold, I’m not going to get in.” He struggled to find a key to unlock the work.
“I’ve always read other writers for little triggers. And I couldn’t find anyone. I read all my own favourites who had done that and blew the dust off Pablo Neruda, who I swear I haven’t read for 20 years. It was kind of not there, but the memories of how it felt were there. And then one day I thought, hang on – Horace – Quintus Horatius Flaccus. It’s so obvious and I went and had a look and there it was. So I read all that again and it just took off.”
The result, published this month, is Wedde’s book of poems, The Commonplace Odes (Auckland University Press), inspired by Roman poet who died at the age of 57 in 8BC. His 10th volume of poetry, it goes with three novels, a collection of short stories, the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse that he co-edited, a clutch of art catalogues and a book of his essays and art writing.
More overtly classical than his earlier work – the style less quirky – The Commonplace Odes address, among other things, Wedde’s friends, his “sweetheart”, his dead parents, his twin brother (who is an air traffic controller in Auckland), his sons, the seasons, death, the millenium, a mountain, a cookbook, art and praxis, Te Papa (one wonders who he is addressing in Epistle to a Virtuous Lieutenant), himself and Horace, whose writings in translation sprinkle the book.
At home Wedde shares a large two-storey house in Wellington’s Mt Victoria with his partner Donna Malane, “whose great humour and salutory disenchantment make her too smart to be anyone’s muse but who got me started writing again”. The house has been home to a tribe of boys. Nowadays only Jack, Wedde’s youngest, is in residence. As we talk in his upstairs office, I note a mellower man than I remembered 15 years ago. Fuller of face and less likely to fix you with a lean stare, the man once described by publisher Alister Taylor as an “intellectual bullshit artist” (which Wedde takes as a compliment) is reflective, even self-deprecating.
Wedde was born in 1946 in Blenheim, one of twin boys, and was first educated at Blenheim Primary School, where there his grandfather had once been principal. His father was the accountant for the Marlborough Express but his mother, he says, was bored out of brain in Blenheim.
“She was a very, very clever woman. She, I think, longed to have a bit more of a life. My father was always stricken with wanderlust. He loved travelling. So, partly because my mother egged him on, he managed to find a job in what was then East Pakistan, right up in the back of beyond, up under the Assam Hills, up the Karnafuli River.”
” So we departed as a little Kiwi family. I would have been seven I guess. I remember the trip extremely well. I remember the whole hedgehopping quality of air travel then. Short stops. Through the middle of storms. It was fantastic. My brother and I basically ran feral for about four years. We were just out there in the jungle doing pretty much what we wanted.”
Wedde took the experience pretty much in his stride. “I think as a kid what you see is what the world is. The difference between Blenheim Primary School and being in a clinker dinghy with a Seagull outboard on the back in The Sounds and being on the Karnafuli River with corpses floating by . . . I mean one was one and the other was the other.”
For a while the Wedde twins were taught by “this amazing man called Robert Luebker, German man . . . he taught us everything. He taught us maths and literature. He taught us two languages. I was good at French and German by the time I finished with him, about the age of 10. Lost it now to some extent. That was a fantastic gift, and some Latin as well.”
The twins were 11 when the Weddes moved to England and, though they eventually wound up at a good public school, they were initially sent to a prep boarding school.
“It was bloody awful. It was the pits. My parents had no way of knowing this. They went back off on another jaunt. And from that time on I saw them very little. For the rest of my life really . . . I used to catch up with them every couple of years. They had a great life of adventure and romance. A wonderful time. They were exemplary.”
* * *
Back in New Zealand when he was 15, Wedde went to Auckland’s Kings College and then to Auckland University, where he met writers Alan Brunton and Russell Haley. It was the “tail-end of the modernist thing”, and they were reading American poets such as Robert Creeley and the “new poetry” being published out of America by small presses and universities. With what Wedde now calls “a very inflated sense of our importance” they set themselves against the mainstream, which initially included James K Baxter.
“Most people at that time, in the 60s, were setting themselves against what we vaguely referred to as Georgianism. We didn’t actually know what it was, I think, but we set ourselves against this Georgianism. And some of Baxter’s early poetry had some of those lyric qualties, in the sense of a rather rich actorly voice, something we didn’t like much.
“But it was difficult to see Jim as the mainstream when he was hanging out at Boyle Crescent. People used to make a little bit of fun of him. Because it’s like your kids when you put on a kind of cool T shirt. They say, ‘God, please’ – you know. He was kind of trying to be with youth. By the same token there was quite a lot of respect for him, and when Pig Island Letters came out, that was the book that changed people’s attitude, because the poems had a certain kind of clarity in their address. They were very crisp and distinct and New Zealandish.”
About this time, Wedde recalls, he developed a very unhealthy habit . “I was utterly paranoid. I was terrified not to have read the latest issue of a magazine X, Y or Z. There was this awful fear, a longing. It was a fear of not being up with the game. But it was also a fear of missing out, just a personal fear. Get over that. I would read a copy of the latest overseas magazine, whatever it was, and be in a state of high anxiety because the next one one wasn’t there. And it was a six-monthly for Christ’s sake . . .
“In the end it wasn’t about servicing an intelligence or a sensibility or anything like that, it was just about obsession.”
Poet Bill Manhire, who was then resident in Dunedin, caught Wedde’s attention. He was publishing work, mainly in Landfall. “I think I wrote to him and said it’s probably time we met, isn’t it? We seem to be on the same wavelength here and you’re in Dunedin and I’m in Auckland.
“Eventually we met in the Kiwi Hotel, which is where you had to meet, and had a beer and a bit of a talk, and it was slightly awkward and we became friends. He was very unpretentious. And . . . I was contrastingly pretentious. It was part of the Auckland thing at the time. He was much more interested in New Zealand literature is another way of putting it. He wasn’t not interested and didn’t have an attitude. He was a much more mature, open-minded individual than we were.”
Wedde says that people such as he and Alan Brunton came back from their OE in the 60s thinking that they hadn’t been entirely wrong. There was a bigger world out there, “and we were right to feel claustrophobic about the kind of inevitability of being provincial.
“But at the same time we got the measure of how big it was. And I think most people came back understanding that doing something in the place was not a limitation.”
* * *
In 1972 Wedde and his then wife Rose Beauchamp arrived in Dunedin. “I got the Burns Fellowship, which was a bit of a lifesaver for Rose and myself. We were living in London and things hadn’t gone very well in the last year there. We lost a child and we had an unhappy time.
It was in Dunedin that he got to know Ralph Hotere, from whom, he says, he learnt an enormous amount: “He was constantly – socially, geographically, politically, emotionally, in every possible way – alert to where he was and to who he was with.”
And it was in Dunedin that Wedde wrote the books that established his reputation, Earthly Sonnets to Carlos and The Pathway to the Sea. “And the poets who mattered most to me through that time were people like William Carlos Williams, who made it clear that if you couldn’t look at and see and couldn’t value the little things, then you you were pretty much without credibility making statements about large issues.”
Moving to Wellington in the mid 1970s, the Weddes at first worked with Brunton and the Red Mole theatre group, making “a miserable living” doing tours of summer campsites and the like; and he also worked as a postie before making a go of if as a freelance writer.
“I stitched together a few regular things. I had reasonable royalties coming in. There were three or four books that kept a little trickle. I did a lot af associated editing work.”
In the 1980s he became better known to Wellingtonians for his art reviews in the Evening Post, which he did for six years.
“What I learnt there, specially from one of the feature editors, was to learn the equivalent of looking through my son’s eyes when Carlos was little. You have to learn to think about the reception by your audience. I’d never done that, really. I had never really been given that discipline. And at the same time, I learnt that you can’t patronise. You shouldn’t. That a language that the racing journalists used in the racing page was a specialist language and they were not patronising their core readers. I also had to learn a helluva lot about the artworld, because I had only ever been an outside observer.”
When Wedde was offered the Te Papa job, in 1993, he says he was “roaring in his life and his profession”. He had a good contract with the International Festival to deliver “of a thing called Under Capricorn and was at the tail-end of curating a Tony Fomison exhibition. “I was also working on a film project with Donna at that time and we were going for it.
“It was the most unlikely time in my life to have chosen to take the shift, but what really happened was that I was given a vision of what this place was about. What its intention was. It completely blew me away. It was that all the intellectual resources of a major museum were going to be redirected to whatever degree in its various parts towards an audience that was absolutely inclusive of every kind of citizen.”
Though he has copped some flak from the high-art community for the way Te Papa displays the national collection and its seeming lack of interest in contemporary New Zealand art, Wedde answers his critics by saying: “I’m not decorating my own house here. Nor am I on the phone to people within my own comfort zone. It’s bigger than that by an indescribably larger amount than me going to write art reviews for the Evening Post. It is bigger than me writing books of poetry.”